Early in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband Paul tells her: “I’m sorry you have to walk 1000 miles just to…”
“Finish that sentence,” Cheryl responds. “Why do I have to walk 1,000 miles?” He doesn’t say.
Later, a few hundred miles into her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl calls her ex-husband. He doesn’t answer; she leaves a message: “I’m still alive. That’s all the news I have.” She hangs up, and walks away.
Cheryl never says exactly why she walks the Pacific Crest Trail. Her mother (“the love of my life,” she tells a therapist) has unexpectedly died and she wants to walk herself into a new life, she says vaguely. She’s using heroin and sleeping with any man that asks, behavior that leads to the end of her seven year marriage. After she tells a friend she has become pregnant, and has “an idea” of who the father is, Cheryl sees a guide book for hiking the PCT and the cover sticks in her mind.
She has to do something, and it’s as good a plan as any. So she gets a backpack, packs like a rookie (“who brings 12 condoms on a solo hike?” she’ll ask later), and starts her walk from the California desert to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.
We could say Cheryl is out looking for redemption on the trail. Along the way she will lose a toenail, and her boots, and her water; she’ll meet people who are kind, and others who are less so. We’ll see at her most vulnerable, and longing for peace. This is the easy way to package Wild and it is not wrong to leave it here. But to say there is no more to the film than this is to misunderstand loss and pain, and the hard times of human suffering.
Wild is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Directed by Jean-Marc Valle (who made last year’s very good Dallas Buyer’s Club), and adapted for the screen by the novelist Nick Hornby, the film, like Cheryl, walks a careful line between a complex emotional portrait and an overwrought melodramatic mess.
One or two miscues and the film could have been little more than a standard Hollywood weeper about a lost person seeking redemption in the woods, on a journey that teaches the character, and by extension the audience, easily packaged lessons about how to love yourself, or some such thing. The kind of movie made explicitly to provide inspirational quotes and place them over nature photos.
To be honest, Wild is almost that movie. That it isn’t, that Wild is a success (and it is a great success), is due almost entirely to Reese Witherspoon, who carries on her back not only her giant pack, but also the weight of this entire film. Wild is uncomplicated in its story and structure; it depends chiefly on the beauty of its imagery (photographer Yves Belanger does a great job, but given the surroundings I would expect no less), and the performance of its star.
The physical difficulty of Cheryl’s hike–and her lack of experience or preparation–is used as a lens which reflects Strayed’s life. Wild tells this story through flashbacks, triggered sometimes by moments of physical hardship, sometimes through a hand-gesture. We see Strayed’s youth, her relationship with her mother, her marriage, her drug-use, her promiscuous sexual escapades, her visits to therapists. All this comes in no particular order, working, as our memories do, not chronologically but emotionally.
Like Cheryl on the trail, audiences are given signposts to help us along, literally and metaphorically. She starts out unable even to lift her backpack on her own, crumbling under the weight of her excess. (sidenote: Movies that inspire unprepared people to head into the wilderness are dangerous and problematic in their own right. A Yosemite Park Ranger and I discussed this fact about Wild, he said: “If you want solitude, don’t hike the PCT. Go find a nameless trail to a gorgeous, nameless, and empty mountain valley somewhere. If you want to get fit, walk in your city park”).
As she gets stronger, her pack gets lighter. Her memories more focused. She leaves quotations in the trail-books along the way and they allow us a chance to see expressly the thoughts that tie her past and present. They range from the famous (“I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”, Robert Frost) to the desperate (“God is a ruthless bitch”, Cheryl Strayed).
She also faces the physical risks that come with being a woman hiking the trail alone–from river crossings and dehydration to the men whose paths she crosses. Almost everyone she meets on the trail is a man, and her cautious interactions are some of the most complicated scenes in the film. As we watch Cheryl Strayed mumble her way through a snow-covered mountain (“you can quit anytime,” her friend told her before she left, and the phrase lingers on her lips early in the film), we also see the complicated nature of Cheryl Strayed’s walk, and the compounding difficulty of making a film like Wild.
Witherspoon is in almost every second of Wild; she’s at her best, too, funny, sad, strong. The very conceit of Wild is to push the actress to her limits, both physically and emotionally, and the achievement of the performance really makes Wild what it is. That Wild depends entirely on the performance of Witherspoon, though, seems appropriate. In adapting Strayed’s story for the movies, how else could you make it work but to ask Witherspoon to bear the movie on her back?
Cheryl Strayed’s story is one of a woman finding a trail and taking it to the end, alone. By the end of her walk, Strayed has had the life-saving realizations that are required in a redemption story, but they do not look like the satisfying recovery stories we have seen before; it is still Cheryl, alone, in the woods, wondering aloud about her life.